Ethnoracial Diversity: Toward a New American Narrative

This is a contribution to Prospect Debate: The Illusion of a Minority-Majority America.

Many whites fear the prospect that minorities in the United States may become a majority in the not-too-distant future. Census Bureau population projections understating the size of the country’s white majority have made this prospect seem inevitable. Richard Alba shows, however, that because intermarriage between whites and the members of other groups is on the rise and their children may identify as white, the country may never have a minority majority. The integration of minorities not only brings people of different backgrounds together; it also leads many of them to see themselves as white.

These processes follow in part from the increasing diversity resulting from immigration. Because diversity increases the odds that people of different backgrounds come into contact with one another, it erodes social boundaries. New research supports the view that intergroup contact increases tolerance. In an article in the 2014 Annual Review of Sociology assessing dozens of studies of diversity in the United States and Europe, Tom Van der Meer and Jochem Tolsma find that, contrary to Robert Putnam, contact does not lead to more in- and out-group distrust. The effects, to be sure, are more muted in the United States, because of prejudice toward blacks among white Americans. People living in areas with larger black populations do report less social cohesion. Taking this into consideration in The Diversity Paradox, Jennifer Lee and I show that intermarriage and multiracial offspring not only occur more frequently in the more diverse parts of the country; they do so to an even greater degree than would be expected based just on the minority populations there. Diversity appears to be contributing by itself to more favorable attitudes toward the members of other groups.

Today’s immigration-induced diversity thus has positive social implications. It is folly to see America as divided into two groups, whites and nonwhites. That view fails to do justice to the distinctive history of African Americans, and it fosters a tendency to view other minorities as having similar experiences in the country as blacks. But the children and grandchildren of immigrants often are better integrated than many African Americans have been. Compared to 1970, the life circumstances of African Americans have improved, but they clearly lag that of other ethnoracial groups.

America needs a new narrative to guide its policies regarding race. That narrative should avoid lumping all “people of color” together, thus minimizing the exceptional hardships faced by blacks. We need policies that recognize that the disadvantages of newcomers, especially Mexican Americans, derive more from their often unauthorized migration status than from their ethnoracial status (see my recent book Parents Without Papers, co-authored with Susan K. Brown and James D. Bachmeier). In an era of rising income and wealth inequality, new ameliorative programs—such as revised affirmative action initiatives—should target the middle- and working-class members of all ethnoracial groups, with particular emphasis on African Americans and unauthorized Latino immigrants. 

Next: Richard Alba, "Response to Comments"

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